SOUTH ELGIN – Quinten Payne moved back to the St. Charles area leading up to his sophomore year of high school, instantly reconnecting with some old friends he knew as a boy before temporarily relocating to Florida.
Justin Stanko was not one of the North students he was close with as a youth, and Payne and Stanko didn’t have much to do with each other during Payne's initial months back in Illinois.
Look at them now.
Payne and Stanko are enjoying their present together as key members of a St. Charles North boys basketball team that routed rival St. Charles East, 69-53, in Wednesday’s IHSA Class 4A South Elgin Regional semifinal, and their promising futures are also linked. Payne will play college basketball at Loyola, while Stanko will also be a Rambler athlete in soccer.
They call each other best friends these days, even if it wasn’t friendship at first sight.
“At first I was kind of afraid to talk to him because he was the big star in the school, but once we started hanging out, we have a big bond now, and we’re best friends,” Stanko said. “I love it.”
Payne laughed at the memory of Stanko being skittish around him a few years ago.
Then again, the 6-foot-6, broad-shouldered Stanko didn’t hold the same stature as a sophomore, physically or otherwise.
“When I came to the school, he was shorter than me,” the 6-foot-4 Payne said. “He didn’t look physically like he does now.”
Neither Payne nor Stanko were particularly friendly to the Saints on Wednesday.
Payne ripped East for a game-high 26 points, making memories of his missed free throws at the end of a regular season loss to the Saints melt away like Tuesday’s snow.
Stanko, meanwhile, continued his postseason emergence, following his 17-point night in Monday’s win against South Elgin with 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots against East.
Nothing calms a team like receiving inside production early in a game, and that’s exactly what Stanko supplied Wednesday.
Better yet, North coach Tom Poulin said Stanko’s many contributions extend beyond the easily identifiable stats.
“From defensively playing it correctly and chesting up and not going for a block, and then turning around and being the first guy down the floor and finishing on the other end – just hustle plays,” Poulin said. “Really everybody has kind of been playing with their heart, and Justin’s kind of led the way in that department for us.”
Payne, meanwhile, was his relentless self, pump-faking and driving his way to the rim – or at least the free throw line – with regularity.
Few players have an offseason work ethic that can match Payne’s, and after a North career with plenty of postseason disappointment, Wednesday provided a fitting reward.
“This is what I’ve worked 18 years for, to try to get to this point,” Payne said.
As impressive of a night as it was for Payne, Stanko and the North Stars, it was tough to see the Saints end their season in such meek fashion.
A year that started with a St. Charles East Thanksgiving Tournament championship and saw point guards Dom Adduci and Cole Gentry develop into a dynamic tandem in East’s backcourt came to a close with a one-and-done thumping in regionals at the hands of the Saints’ archrival.
Then again, this is a St. Charles East team that envisioned Kendall Stephens slinging in clutch shots, not working his way out of a sling after shoulder surgery.
It’s a what-might-have-been type winter for East, which figures to be back in a big way next year with Adduci and Gentry among a deep pool of promising returnees.
North, more of a senior-oriented squad, is playing for the present, albeit with an opponent in Friday’s regional final that looked just as impressive Wednesday; Upstate Eight Conference River champion Larkin whipped Elgin in the night’s first semifinal.
Continued leadership from Payne and Stanko will be needed, along with plenty of help from their teammates.
The two plan to room together on the north side of Chicago come the fall. Since their seasons don’t conflict, Payne and Stanko will have ample opportunity to root one another on from the stands, as well.
“I’ll be cheering him on, he’ll be cheering me on,” said Stanko, a defender in soccer. “We’ll be in the gym shooting all the time, and just helping each other out.”
After a tentative start to their friendship, Payne and Stanko are making up for lost time.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.